In the days leading up to San Diego 100 I kept thinking about that famous Frank Shorter quote, “You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can’t know what’s coming.” The event was feeling a bit more ominous than it should have. Two weeks out I had to basically shut down the running and concentrated on a strong finish to the school year; the most challenging one, in terms of classroom management, in my ten years teaching. Throw in coaching and training for a 100mi run and no surprise that my soul’s check-engine light came on. Thankfully I had a week to catch up on rest and get my head on straight before the big day in SoCal on June 6th.
Nice to have a direct flight down to San Diego on Thursday before the Saturday race. I got out on the course a bit on Friday to preview the start/finish after a huge night’s sleep. The race started to feel less threatening and more like it should—an epic adventure on brand-new trails! First thing I realized was I needed some gaiters to protect my ankles and feet from the plethora of pesky foxtails that were in over-abundance due to recent rains. I’d pick some up at registration later that day and in tandem with a brand-spanking new pair of Hoka Challengers, I’d have zero foot issues for 100 miles. BOO-yah!
I’d posted a question on Facebook a few days before the race about what settings to use on my Suunto Ambit 3 Peak and an illuminating conversation thread ensued. I ended up using the 1sec recording interval with “best” GPS accuracy. For this race, I chose not to use heart-rate, not merely because it saves battery life, but because, this time, I wanted to race a 100 without it. Suunto note: upon finishing I had 20% battery life remaining. My back-up Suunto never left its mile-80 drop-bag. I was happy that the Peak’s band didn’t bother my wrist all day, as it had been doing in training. I prefer the Sport’s band since it’s softer, but the Sport doesn’t have the Peak’s robust battery life.
Racing aid-station to aid-station was the plan from the start; chunking the mind-numbing 100-miler up into bite-size pieces is, for me, mentally advantageous. Thus, I had three pieces of data on my Suunto the entire race: lap-distance, lap-time, and lap-pace. Upon departing each aid-station, I was sure to hit the ol’ lap button and do my best to live in that “space” from aid to aid, a task that would grow increasingly difficult as the race wore on and my weary mind would drift to how much racing was still left…
On this day, running “within myself” found me in first position after about 15 miles. I can’t say I was psyched to be there with so much racing to go but I’ve learned that I need to run my race at my pace, and this was the reality. I pressed on all day long, thinking about this-that-and-the-other, but returning to Karl Meltzer’s sage 100-mile advice, “You gotta be there in the final 25% of the race.”
Race director, Scott Mills, his staff, and volunteers run a tight ship; one BIG reason I chose to run San Diego this year. Communication with athletes in the preceding weeks was excellent. Course-marking was dialed, including confidence ribbon every 3-5min, flour arrows with extra flagging at turns, signage, and critical junctions were often manned with volunteers to ensure weary runners didn’t make any knuckle-head mistakes. I previewed the finish route the day before. I could roughly sketch the entire course from memory, including all the connector out-n-back trails. Scott reinforced through multiple email communications, and again at the pre-race briefing, the importance of keeping your head in the game and doing your due diligence with regards to knowing the course. Bottom line for me: I feared getting off course more than anything. Every ribbon spied was a small victory, all day long.
Even at this race, with so much vigilant course-marking happening—before and during the race—there was still a longish stretch, somewhere there in the middle miles, where I’d been running too long without seeing a marker. I knew there’d been no other way to go yet I was starting to get nervous. Down-trail, I saw a wadded up bunch of orange ribbon thrown between some bushes. “Ohhh, sh******t”, I thought. Right there, on a log though, near the displaced ribbon, I spied one lone ribbon that had a SD100 note attached to it, explaining to passersby that there was a 100-mile trail-race going on, imploring them to not remove the ribbon, etc.
It appeared to me that someone had found this particular downed ribbon, read the note, recognized its significance and thoughtfully placed it on that log as an act of goodwill. I imagine notes like that appealing to people’s humanity, discouraging vandalism on one hand and encouraging others to lend a hand and replace down ribbon. Yet, I didn’t fully trust the course-markings for a mile or so, scrutinizing over how each one was attached to a branch, tree, bush, sign, or rock. Vandals had sent us on a wild goose-chase at mile-20 at Gorge Waterfalls 100k in March. Once bitten, twice shy baby. The ribbon thankfully led me to the next aid-station, where I shared the news with a concerned aid-station captain.
Upon reaching Pine Creek aid-station I was about 100k in and still averaging about 9:30/mi pace. I’d been riding the line with nausea for hours. Before departing Pine Creek, I asked the volunteers, how far to the next aid. They reminded me, “Eight miles. All uphill.” My spirit took a hit. I lingered a bit longer there, drank another 12oz of water, cold-sponged myself, and set to the task of climbing. I would lose about 30sec/mi off my average race-pace by the time I reached the Sunrise 2, at mile 72.
Mile by mile, I was grateful for previous experiences like climbing up Diamond Peak at mile 80 in Tahoe Rim Trail 100 and ascending Peavine Summit from mile 33 to 39 in Silver State 50. In the words of educational theorist John Dewey, “All experiences live on in future experiences.” One foot in front of the other. I knew if I didn’t suck it up on this section, someone—back there—would happily reel me in, just like the flyin’ Frenchman, Jean Pommier, did last year at Silver State.
Somewhere about mile 7 of 8, up this godforsaken climb to Pioneer Mail 2. I was out of water and calories, even after rationing best I could. Both bottles now bone dry. I thought about this hilarious “100 Mile 101” pic my wife shared with me a few days prior. At this very moment I knew I just moved from #2 to #3—“This is shit.” What was curious about it was there was something in the back of my mind that now found the situation somewhat comical. The power of these “steps” though wasn’t necessarily the lighthearted humor, but the promise of getting to #5 and ultimately #6. I knew I still had to get through #4 though…
At the top I was greeted by pacer extraordinaire, and Inside Trail Racing teammate, Chris Wehan, who told me, “I’m bored,” so he was jumping in early. Fine by me! We’d planned on teaming up at Sunrise 2 (mile 79). It was good to have some company. “Soooo… you’re walking?, he said.” I was having a moment. I soon got over it and started running again. Chris never fails to fire me up. Whether pacing or racing against him, he always brings out my best. At an Inside Trail 50k in Woodside in late April, we were hitting the early, soft downhills there at 4:45/mi pace. We would both subsequently blow sky-high later in the race. Friendly competition at its finest! I found myself thinking how nice it would be to run at 50k race pace to the finish, and get this bullsh*t over with asap.
Chris and I got into a rhythm and I grew quiet, struggling now with fatigue and nausea. Thinking I had at least a 20-30min lead over 2nd place, my mammalian brain attended to its job of slowing me down, since I believed there was no threat from behind. Nausea turned into vomiting. I’d reached #4 – “I am shit.” Back moving. Get in calories…
Besides a Picky Bar in the first 10mi, I’d only taken in calories from VitargoS2. I’d premixed nine bottles, each with about 300cal/bottle and placed them in drop-bags that I’d basically hit at every other aid-station throughout the day. Each time I picked up a bottle, I had a 280cal packet of Vitargo rubber-banded to it, to use at the aid-stations in between, where I would not have a drop-bag. As the race wore on, and my stomach was less and less cooperative, I found I had to dilute my 300cal mixture with water to reach a concentration that my gut could sustainably handle. Once beyond 70mi I also started using a 50/50 mix of water and chicken broth in what had been my water-only/cooling bottle (aka: bottle #2). From this point on, I’d use the “steady-drip” method of fueling/hydrating, taking little hits off the diluted Vitargo, chasing it with bigger gulps of delicious, life-giving chicken broth.
Like the song goes, “When the lights go down in the California town / People are in for the evenin’.” Not the ultra-runners. We’re out there with all the critters that come out at dusk. As Chris and I shuffled up on the PCT to Sunrise 2, we watched the shadows grow long and spied several fox, deer, and later, closer to the finish, we had to run past a juvenile skunk, which evidently sprayed us a bit, since folks at the finish said I smelled kind of skunky. While chasing the sunset, I told Chris about the rattlesnake I almost stepped on in the heat of the afternoon. Biggest rattler I’d ever seen on the trail; coiled up, and rattling to beat the band. I’d given that guy a wide birth and told the RD, upon running into him again at the next aid. I guess I could go without seeing snakes, but all the wildlife throughout the day, added to the wildness of the experience.
I’d been silently dreading Chambers 2 aid-station at mile 88 since about mile 12, when I hit it on the way out. It’s tough because you’re 88 miles in and you can see the finish from across the lake, that is, if you look left, which I didn’t. Chris said what I was thinking, “Let’s get in and out of this aid-station fast. You can see from the map that Chambers has an out-n-back connector. We wanted to be back-n-forth before 2nd place came in. And we almost made it.
As we were just about to turn right to head up the first of two climbs to the finish, 12mi to go, we see a headlamp moving along the trail to our left. Without someone ahead to keep me “in the hunt” I’d simply slowed too much, or so I thought. Turns out, Ben Bucklin had been making a charge for hours, getting feedback from aid-stations that I wasn’t looking too hot, inspiring him to give chase. With 12 to go, the race was ON!
The adrenaline surged, the temps were dropping, the stomach immediately righted itself and two miles of climb later, we were averaging 10:30/mi pace. Push. We ran everything I could. 5.1mi to the final aid-station at Paso Picacho, where we topped off my bottles, and quickly moved on down the trail. 7.1 brutal miles to the finish. Anything could happen. I had to push on the climbs, stay steady, try to keep calories coming in, and ride the line as best I could. I remember Chris reporting 10k to go, then later 5k to go. How I longed to be running my open 5 or 10k pace at that moment! Get this sh*t over with!
The final two miles into the finish are brutal. Lots of loose, large rocks that make running quickly all but impossible, especially in the dark. Every time we start to push, we’d stumble, or twist an ankle. Adjusting pace, we moved more carefully through this section, sometimes rewarded with a smooth stretch, where I’d open up the stride, imagining increasing the gap to 2nd by a few more seconds. Keep that cadence quick!
Careful to stay on course, we finally arrived at Highway 79, crossed, and made the hop-skip-and-jump to the finish. I was psyched to see 17:09:28 on the official clock and shake Scott Mills’ hand. I wanted to be under 17:30 here at San Diego since my 100mi personal best, set at Tahoe Rim Trail 100 last year, was 17:38. I also didn’t want to let Scott down by making any major knucklehead navigational mistakes, considering how much energy he and his staff put into marking the course so well.
Ben Bucklin came in a few minutes later, winning the solo-division (sans pacer), the first year this division was offered. I was counting my lucky stars that my pacer, Chris, happened to be visiting family in Los Angeles this same weekend, and so graciously offered up his time to hobble around in the dark with me, while I vomited, stumbled, farted, grumbled, and belched. Bucklin ran a solid race and pushed so hard to close the gap down to within 8min at Chambers 2, at mile 88. His efforts to bridge and get within sight of 1st, put the fear of God into me, which made me dig deep, find another gear, and work so hard to the finish. Competitors will always push us harder than we would otherwise push ourselves. Because of Ben, that final 12mi brought out my best and produced some powerful, and cherished memories. Long live sport.
Faster than Twitter, thanks to my beautiful, loving, and highly supportive wife Amanda for her thankless job [even from afar] as “First Responder.” | Thank you to Julbo Eyewear for the beautiful, functional, and comfortable sunglasses. It’s GREAT to be working with you! | Thank you to Hoka One One for the their continued support and producing the best shoes out there—#LetsGoHoka! | Thanks to Inside Trail Racing for offering so many fantastic races in great places. | Thanks to Vitargo for the steady energy and SIMPLIFYING my SAN DIEGO 100 nutrition. | Thank you Healdsburg Running Company for the awesome show of support for SD100. HRC rocks!! | Thanks to my friends at Nuya coconut water for the optimal way to replenish after a long (long) run.